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Just Right Parenting: An Executive Function Strategy for Parents

If your child has ever complained to you about having too little milk in a glass (“But I’m thirsty!”) and then after you added more, complained that it was too much (“I can’t finish it all!”), you know how challenging it can be to find the right balance in parenting. It’s like how Goldilocks wanted her porridge to be in the fairy tale. Not too hot, not too cold, but “just right.”

Finding techniques that are “just right” for a child’s autonomy can have a positive effect on the child’s Executive Function development. 

Autonomy-Supportive Parenting

Most parents, when helping their child to achieve some goal such as finishing a puzzle or completing homework, display one of a few different parenting styles: laissez-faire, or laid-back, sometimes to the point of not being present enough, controlling, or autonomy-supportive

As you might have guessed, autonomy-supportive parenting works because it’s “just right.” It balances being patient and stepping back with being helpful and involved. When children master challenging tasks with this “just right” level of support from parents, they develop autonomy. This gives them a sense of personal agency (“I did it!”) and self-efficacy (“I’m good at figuring things out even if they are hard at first”). 

What does this mean for you as a parent?

penguin and babyFirst, try to be mindful of how you parent. It’s not always easy to know when you’re helping too much or too little. However, you can always ask yourself, “Is this something my child could do on his own without help?” If so, you may want to try stepping back. Simply being mindful of the “just right” level of support can make a big difference. It can help you know when it’s okay to let your child fail at a task. 

Second, consider doing things to work on your own executive function skills. Doing so can make you a better parent. Start with small things. For instance, try to take time for yourself to recharge, so you don’t get overwhelmed. Learn and practice self-calming techniques, and try out tips for saving time and being more efficient. You also can strengthen your own cognitive flexibility by trying things in different contexts, such as switching up your usual walking route, and mentally role-playing different points of view when you have an interpersonal conflict with a co-worker or partner. If you can model these behaviors for your child while fostering their sense of autonomy and ownership over their own behavior, you are likely to see improvements in your child’s executive function skills.

Most importantly, if you’re in the heat of the moment with your child, and need a reminder, think of Goldilocks. Not too little, not too much, but just right.

To learn more about supporting Executive Function at home, try our FREE course, Supporting Executive Function at Home. 

About the Author:

Stephanie Carlson

Dr. Stephanie Carlson is currently a Distinguished McKnight University Professor at the Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota. Prior to this, she was Assistant-to-Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology, University of Washington (1998-2007).

Dr. Carlson is a developmental psychologist and internationally recognized leader in the measurement of executive function in preschool children. She conducts research on ways to promote the healthy development of EF in children and their caregivers. Her work has received funding from federal agencies and non-profit foundations, including the National Institutes of Health, Institute of Education Sciences, John Templeton Foundation, and the Character Lab. Dr. Carlson’s research is highly cited and has been featured in several media outlets, including Time, Newsweek, New York Times Magazine, The Times (UK), Forbes, Wall Street Journal, and National Public Radio.

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